Overdue Review | Better Late.


Published on February 6th, 2017 | by Andy Sedlak

The J. Geils Band – ‘Freeze Frame’ [1981]

The J. Geils Band – ‘Freeze Frame’ [1981] Andy Sedlak

Summary: Thirty-five years after Freeze Frame’s release, we now hear it as a combination of the various styles of The J. Geils Band. Old-school rave-ups sit next to new-school pop hits. It was ultimately a sign that the end was near.


Damn Fine

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Released: Oct. 21, 1981
Length: 40:56
Producer: Seth Justman
Label: EMI
Peak Chart Position: No. 1
Top 40 Singles: 3

Eleven albums. Hard-won commercial acceptance. Thousands upon thousands of concert hours logged in their native Boston alone.

It all came to an end after 1981’s Freeze Frame.

The J. Geils Band had been at it since 1967 and Freeze Frame finally put them on top of the music world. It was by far the band’s most successful album, bolstered by the runaway success of the single “Centerfold,” which spent six weeks at No. 1 in early 1982.

To put it into perspective, that’s three more weeks at No. 1 than Justin Bieber’s “Sorry.”

“Centerfold” launched the band into another stratosphere and took a television network with it. MTV premiered only a month before the album’s release. Needy network execs put the “Centerfold” video in heavy rotation. It turned out to be a perfect marriage.

The J. Geils Band had been steadily maturing as songwriters and — at the persistence of wild-man vocalist Peter Wolf and brainchild Seth Justman — slowly inching toward the pop world. The previous year’s record Love Stinks flashed its audience with new wave flourishes, but in 1981 the band had a new confidence to pursue the budding genre with gusto.

The J. Geils Band, shown in 1973, split up after Freeze Frame.

It didn’t sit well with everyone. Founder and bandleader John Geils merely tolerated it. And when the boss isn’t happy, trouble will follow.

Listening to Freeze Frame now, we hear a combination of the various flavors of The J. Geils Band. There are the type of rave-ups you’d find on their first four albums (“Rage in the Cage,” “Flamethrower”), Sanctuary-era testimony (“Do You Remember When,” “Piss on the Wall”), Monkey Island weirdness (“River Blindness”) and finally neo-pop dominance (“Centerfold,” “Freeze Frame,” “Angel in Blue”).

The title track is probably the most singularly commercial song the band ever recorded. About a woman the singer can’t get out of his head. It’s new wave first; rock second.

From “Freeze Frame:”
Zoom lens feelings just won’t disappear
Close-up darkroom sweet talk in my ear
Her hot-spot love for me is strong
This freeze frame moment can’t be wrong

“Centerfold” is almost the opposite, prioritizing a roaring rock chorus with swirls of new wave as accompaniment.

From “Centerfold:”
She was pure like snowflakes
No one could ever stain
The memory of my angel
Could never cause me pain
Years go by I’m lookin’ through a girly magazine
And there’s my homeroom angel on the pages in between

It’s important to remember that The J. Geils Band were on the cutting edge of new wave. The biggest rock songs of 1981 were songs like “Jessie’s Girl” and John Lennon’s “(Just Like) Starting Over.” REO Speedwagon’s “Keep On Loving You,” Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” and Hall & Oates’ “Kiss On My List” were all released that year — none of them committed to new wave like The J. Geils Band did in October 1981.

Blondie’s “Rapture” was released in January 1981, perhaps emboldening The J. Geils Band after they began recording in 1980. Other than that, new wave bands like the Vapors and Split Enz were still mostly on the fringes. It would be another two years before ZZ Top cleaned up with Eliminator, proving old jam bands could drape themselves in the sounds of the moment and still retain their identities.

Keyboardist, producer and arranger Justman embraced the emerging production trend and put a contemporary gloss over everything. He deserves credit for navigating an emerging current with expertise. Still, Freeze Frame’s ’80s vibe isn’t what the album should be remembered for. Even with the multiple layers of gloss, the divisions now seem evident. Freeze Frame is, in fact, about a band with evolving musical preferences.

The harmonica-heavy “Rage in the Cage” sits between two bonafide pop hits. Harpist Richard “Magic Dick” Salwitz furiously runs up and down the track, his harmonica the lead instrument and lead blocker for Wolf’s excited vocal.

From “Rage in the Cage:”
Shopping center crazy
I need some fast relief
The boss says, ‘Boy you’re lazy’
But I’m just bored beyond belief

“Rage in the Cage” and its companion piece, “Flamethrower,” root each side of the original record with enough grit to counterbalance the band’s new mainstream sound.

From “Flamethrower:”
The things she wears at work
The hang off her kinda loose
Her blouse don’t fit, her pants ain’t right
She ain’t no front page news

But when her work is done
And the daytime turns to night
The headlines flash in neon
That girl has taken flight

While “Centerfold” and “Freeze Frame” conquered the pop charts, “Flamethrower” was a hit on black radio. It charted at No. 25 on the R&B chart, indicating widespread acceptance in urban areas. It charted even higher — at No. 12 — on the dance chart.

Of course, it wouldn’t be The J. Geils Band if they didn’t include a charming throwaway. Here, it’s “Insane, Insane Again.”

The second half of this record is all over the place. Each of last four songs spring up from a different genre. Frat rock, hard R&B, psychadelic folk and a story song. Each tune differs significantly from the one before it. It all builds to “Angel in Blue,” the most cinematic song The J. Geils Band ever put forward.

From “Angel in Blue:”
I watched as she spoke
Her words chilled my bones
All her friends did her favors
That were really just loans

“Angel in Blue” is Justman’s finest song and Wolf’s most earnest vocal performance. The songwriting team of Justman/Wolf is one of the more underrated in rock history. On Freeze Frame, the pair wrote four of the album’s nine tracks.

Justman wrote two of the album’s three hits (“Centerfold” and “Angel in Blue”) on his own.

Once his obligations to promote the mega-successful Freeze Frame were over, Wolf used the opportunity to record his first solo album in 1984. The band officially broke up the following year, making Freeze Frame its swan song by default.

They did record one album without Wolf: 1984’s You’re Getting Even While I’m Getting Odd. Justman took over on lead vocals, but the band no longer claims it and it does not appear on their official website.

Over the years, disputes with the band’s namesake have occupied many column inches. These days Geils doesn’t join his bandmates for reunions. There was a lawsuit arguing that the rest of the group conspired against him and illegally used the name of the band. Sadly, he’s officially a “former member.”

The band’s unofficial coda comes in the final track of Freeze Frame.

From “Piss On the Wall:”
Well the Yanks hate the Reds
And the Greeks hate the Turks
I really hate to say it
But they’re all a bunch of jerks
Seems like everybody’s shakin’
‘Cause the big one’s ’bout to fall
I’m just tryin’ to hold it steady
While I piss on the wall

After that, there was nothing left to say.

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About the Author

Andy Sedlak is a former television reporter who lives in Dayton, OH. He grew up in a household that pumped Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel every weekend. He instantly became a new man when he discovered Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” in junior high.

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